As a teenager, did you ever walk into a Careers Guidance or counselling meeting and been asked the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” How did you feel? When I was first asked this at the age of 10 it was fun. I answered that I wanted to be a vet, or later, a doctor. I wasn’t daunted by this question, it didn’t feel weighted.
Somehow by the time I was 15 being asked what I wanted to be was more important, more significant, and needed to be considered. No longer could I take my time and have fun, somehow this answer needed to be a better reflection of my growing up and needed a considered response as if now I needed to actually ‘know’. The truth is, it’s not so much that this needs to be written in concrete at the age of 15 and more that I had shown a depth to my thinking: shown that I had a better sense of self awareness or knew my strengths and how I might use them – but is that realistic and how are you supposed to learn this?
I will answer this question but even more importantly is the fact that at the age of 18 – only three years further on, you are expected to know what you want to do, have chosen a University course, taken ‘A’ levels or their equivalent with this in mind, AND know how capable you are of doing well in life by choosing a good career so that the degree course counts towards it. How do we know all this between the ages of 15 and 18 when at no other time in our lives, such as between 21 to 24, are we expected to have accelerated our learning and our growth in a three year time period!
So, is this unrealistic or is it a question that more significant, yet intangible, changes have taken place which if we could tap into would be seen as a sign of something changing that guides us even if it isn’t a certainty of what we are gifted to do for a living? I looked to people who have not done this for my inspiration: those who didn’t know what they wanted to be or wanted to do and asked them what difference it made to their lives. The answer was a lot, but how?
The issue seems to be about setting goals as much as knowing what you are good at. If you can practice setting yourself targets, decide on a goal to aim for, you can begin to respond to structure in your life. Structure brings confidence in yourself and the ability to build a plan. Without goals or a plan young people often drift. Inevitably when a 20+ year old comes in to the practice and they don’t know what they want or are capable of, it is because they drifted, drifted after school, drifted into a job, ‘waiting’ for the inspiration, structure or support to appear in their lives that gave them a direction.
But if they set themselves goals from a young age, have an idea of what they might do and aim towards something then they learn a valuable but often intangible skill which is by default a benefit: that it is better to move towards something you want in life than to move away from something you don’t. In essence, it is better to move towards a choice you have made than to be in a position where you are trying to move away from a choice that someone else has made for you. But how should young people learn this skill or the intangible benefit that goes with it? How do they learn what they want to do in such a short period of time between maybe 15 and 18 without being daunted at what they choose?
My suggestions are that they begin by sitting with a blank piece of paper in the company of a friend or parent. As uncomfortable as this may feel, it is designed to list their strengths. Ask your teenager to think about everything they‘ve ever done that they can remember which felt like a small achievement, and list these events or experiences on the left of the page one below the other. For example, their first day at school, riding a bike, moving house, starting a hobby and so on. Opposite each of these events they should think about what each must have taken in order for them to achieve it; did it take confidence, knowledge, persistence or determination? What about kindness, sympathy, love or concentration to add to them? At the end of this article is a list of adjectives, choose as many of them as you can that describe your teenager. Do this as many times as you can over a few days as you will probably find some of the adjectives will grow on them once they have chosen once. I have found we tend to be conservative about describing ourselves when actually there are several more characteristics that we take for granted and therefore omit.
Your teenager may like to take a second page and add a few words to it written quite large, such as Home, Personal & Friends. Then draw a circle around each of these words and draw lines that surround the words. At the end of the lines write any other adjectives that describe what your child is like in that context. Usually this results in more ideas because we can each be different at school than at home. At home we might have a great sense of humour, be loyal or considerate but at school these qualities may not be needed the same so we tend to ignore them.
Now look at both lists together and ask them to really appreciate what they are and what you see. Look at how capable it makes them to have been through what they have known, to have these qualities and to know that these will help develop their potential in the future.
It is then that setting goals becomes easier. Start with two goals that push them if possible. If they are great at golf, suggest they take part in competitions or develop a handicap score they can try to reduce over the months. If they love singing aim to try and join a choir or take lessons. If they like a language aim to acquire phrases or learn to ask directions or understand a conversation. Suggest whatever you can think of that appeals but try to decide on separate things that support their attempts to stretch themselves and then go for it. Adults are more used to goal setting although this is only a recent discovery in my view; we only seem to have been talking about it for the last twenty years or so and connecting it with personal happiness, achievement and future success.
Setting goals is fundamental to success later in life. Those who set goals have a better sense of what they are capable of and they soon learn if you don’t achieve the goal it is only a sign that something about the goals needs to change.
Planning is next. Planning to achieve goals is important because planning is another skill that helps to ensure we don’t sit and wait for life to change or get better. Often other people make decisions for you if you wait for too long and this can disturb our sense of control over our lives and stop us learning about what we want or how to get it. Think about the goals they’ve set and take a bite size chunk to begin with. Then just begin. Don’t wait – these are not life threatening choices, these are designed to teach them the essential skills that will establish a healthy and successful direction for the future. What you do next is help them take ACTION. Without action a goal is just a wish and later in life if they want to be well paid then without determined and persistent plans and action, being well paid is just a hope and hope will not earn them the life they can have, only the life they have at that time.
So in conclusion: knowing your strengths, setting goals, planning and taking action – these are the keys. Knowing your strengths in life means they can also answer the difficult question about what your strengths are when they go for interview at University or for a job. Amazingly, this question gets asked pretty much every time even as you get older. If you have set goals you will have an idea that achievement comes from trying something, and trying hard. Action teaches you that your choices are important; choice is about you and nothing is better for your self-esteem than to feel you have made your choice yourself and not that it was made by someone else.
Making decisions is next and this is a difficult skill even for those of us much later in life so the earlier you learn this, the better. That way when you get asked what you want to be in life it is less daunting because you will recognise you don’t have to know everything, only have an idea, and those ideas will be yours.
Learning to make decisions is not taught in school; we may as parents teach them how to think or even ask you how they feel, but we don’t often teach them how to make decisions yet this decision is what we’re asking them to know ON THE SPOT when at 15 or 18 we ask them ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’. No wonder it is overwhelming for some and they drift in the hope that someone else will make this choice for them.
So, practicing the skill of making decisions is important and worth becoming familiar with. There are several good techniques to try and one of them is listed here: it is a pro’s and con’s exercise. I taught my daughter to do this when at 13 she was asked whether she wanted to move from her much loved dancing group to another, newer one. She was daunted and very troubled but I asked her to sit down with a blank piece of paper and write the heading at the top as if she had made the decision to stay with her current group. I then helped her get started with all the reasons why this was a good idea and all the reasons why it wasn’t and she sat with those for quite a while. The next day I asked her to put aside the first part of the exercise and begin to believe she had now decided to move groups then write the pro’s and con’s of doing this. Again she sat for quite a while and wrote down everything she could think of. After a bit I suggested she put it all down and do something completely different. This helps to stop ‘pushing’ at the problem and ease your thoughts about it around in your mind.
The next day my daughter returned to the pages she had written and looked at them side by side. Now it was easy for her to see her emotions and thoughts from which she made a decision or choice very quickly. She discussed it with me but really she didn’t need to: she knew what was right for her and two years later she has not regretted it and has done well, improving her skill and practicing with her group. They recently reached the second round of ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ which was a good measure of the effort they were all prepared to put in.
There are several good books on the market that tackle decision making and they’re worth a read, the top one being ‘Decision Making & Problem Solving’ by John Adair available in Kindle or paperback from Amazon.co.uk/com. The best book I ever read on the subject of success and how to learn the skills needed to achieve it is still ‘Think & Grow Rich’ by Napoleon Hill, also available on Amazon.
What this article has attempted to offer is that knowing what you want to be in life is daunting to a teenager but with practice and the development of the skills involved which are problem solving, setting goals and knowing their strengths, they have a much better chance of appreciating what they want to be by the critical age of 15 to 18 when this question comes up and starts to matter. It is okay to change your mind on what you decide but it’s better for that mind to have practiced appreciating what you’re good at rather than not knowing where to begin. These skills will stand them in good stead for later in life when your teenager starts going for jobs and standing on their own two feet.
Good luck and please let me know how they get on by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org
Strengths List as a Guide: –
Logical Professional Open Intuitive
Honest Happy Chatty Funny
Articulate Expressive Mature Smart
Intelligent Sensitive Good listener Persistent
Experienced Expert Tactful Affectionate Strong
Capable Caring Loving Genuine
Interesting Focused Determined